Monday, January 30, 2012

Meet Kate Coombs - Folk Tale and Children's Author

If you haven't discovered my love for folk tales and their many adaptations've not been following my blog long enough!  After today's post, though, you'll not only discover some amazing folk'll meet a 'folksy' author and probably become a folk tale fan yourself!  

Then...who knows?  Maybe you'll enter my Mix-it-Up contest (reminder: entries due by Wednesday!)

And without further ado, I introduce today's amazing guest:  

Children's Author Kate Coombs!

Kate Coombs went to school and became an editor, then a teacher, but along the way she always knew she would be a children's book author. For example, while she was in college, she used to study in the children's section of the campus library. That way she could take breaks from her homework to read children's books. Kate spent most of her life in Southern California—until last summer, when she moved to Utah. After teaching school for nearly 15 years, she is now working at a small publisher writing teachers' guides for state history books. (She says this is far more entertaining than it sounds!) Kate has a green thumb, so when she's not reading or writing, she's probably planting something. Kate grew up as one of seven adopted children from various ethnic backgrounds. She writes picture books, poetry, and middle grade fantasy. Hans My Hedgehog is her fourth book. Her fifth book, Water Sings Blue, is a collection of ocean poems due out in March. Whenever she gets a minute, Kate blogs about children's books at Book Aunt.

Miranda: Hi Kate!  Let's begin at the beginning -  on your website, you've got the photo of you as a kid and a lot about you as a child.  What was your childhood "world" like?

Kate:  Although I was born in Washington state, from first grade to high school graduation I lived in Camarillo, a town about an hour's drive north of Los Angeles. When I was small, Camarillo still had patches of orange orchards, but they were replaced by houses over the years. My sister and I rode our bikes to the library every Saturday and checked out as many books as we could—the limit was ten each. We read them voraciously for three or four days and then waited for the next Saturday to come around. I wrote a lot of poems, plays, and stories as a child. I was the proverbial bookworm, much more interested in books than things like handball, which was the big sport at my grade school. I collected seashells and trinkets and read a lot of fantasy, though I was very big on Harriet the Spy and the Nancy Drew books, too.
Miranda: Great favorites!  But what about folk tales? Which were your favorites as a child?

Kate:  At night, when we were supposed to be asleep in our bunk beds, my sister would ask me to tell her stories, and I would recount the fairy tales I had been reading. It used to bother me when she fell asleep in the middle! The stories I most remember telling her were from a book of tales from the Arabian Nights that my grandma gave me. At the time, my favorite was "The Three Sisters," in which cucumbers stuffed with pearls finally convince a sultan that he has terribly misjudged his wife. The story also boasts a wise talking bird, brothers who get turned into rocks, and a heroic young girl. "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" was another favorite. I still have the book, a 1921 edition that boasts "four illustrations in color."

Today, I'd have to say my favorite fairy tales are probably the Norwegian "Beauty and the Beast" variation, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," and a Russian story retold by Marianna Mayer, "Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave." I especially like the character of Baba Yaga, a terrifying cannibal witch with iron teeth who flies around in a mortar, steering with her pestle.

Miranda: Let's stay on the topic of today.   Since you've "grown up," you've every single grade, right?  What's your take on the age-old "moral at the end of the story" adage?"  Should stories have lessons?  Are they teaching tools?

Kate: I am largely averse to children's books that set out to teach a lesson. Didactic picture books, unless they are tongue in cheek, bore me. What about plot? What about whimsy? The ironic secret, of course, is that almost all stories teach lessons, but they teach lessons because of who the authors are and how the characters interact. There are lessons in Where the Wild Things Are, Millions of Cats, and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, to name just a few marvelous classics, but these lessons emerge naturally from the stories being told, and therefore they do not overpower plot. There's something terribly condescending about an author who sets out to teach a lesson rather than to tell a story. That's lecturing, like an elderly college professor who has used the same notes for years to speechify in stultifying tones. For those writers really determined to preach in a children's book, I would say, 1) good luck selling it and 2) the kid who needs your message won't recognize it. (In fact, if someone points it out, he will probably roll his eyes and walk away.)

As a teacher, when I wanted to impart some kind of moral lesson I used roll-playing, usually after lunch recess, which was when most of the social conflicts took place. It was very effective because the kids were enchanted by the idea of acting things out. We'd do the "plays" twice, once for what happened and again for how the situation should have been handled. Slow-motion punches were a favorite, of course.

Miranda:  Well said! Now, tell us more about your new books!

Kate: Hans My Hedgehog is one of the Brothers Grimm's less well-known stories, and there's a reason for that. When illustrator John Nickle said he wanted to retell the tale, the editor took a look at the original and shuddered. After some discussion with other editors, she found out I had a nice folktale voice (thanks to my first picture book, The Secret-Keeper). Susan contacted me, explaining that the Hans story was "violent and meandering." Would I please retell it?

Hans My Hedgehog is about a boy who is born human from the waist down and hedgehog from the waist up. Naturally, he hangs out with his herd of pigs, riding around on a rather large rooster. He also plays the fiddle. In the Grimms' story Hans played the bagpipes, but the illustrator wanted to use a fiddle, and it turned out really well, especially in the climactic scene. I love that John made the fiddle red!

I had a very good time giving this story a makeover while (I hope) retaining the strength of the original plot. I think the best thing I did was to use Hans's pigs as a humorous plot device. I basically saved them from being slaughtered, which was what happened in the original. Instead I made the pigs into Hans's loyal followers, as well as the instrument of his revenge against a promise-breaking king. Thanks to the illustrator, the pigs even dance at Hans's wedding!


My other new book, which is coming out in mid March, is a collection of ocean poems (mostly about ocean animals). The illustrations are just as beautiful as the Hans artwork, though in quite a different way. Meilo So used watercolor, fittingly enough, whereas John Nickle worked in acrylic. I'll share the title poem with you to give you a salt-air taste:

Song of the Boat

Push away from the stillness of the nut-brown land,
from the road that leads to the shore.

Push away from the town with its tight tree roots,
from its closed brown shutters and doors.

Push away—heave-ho—from the heavy brown pier,
from its pilings huddled and dull.

For the water sings blue and the sky does, too,
and the sea lets you fly like a gull.

Miranda:  Lovely selection!  So where does all this writing take place? Tell us more about your office/desk...I'm sure readers are interested in seeing the "writing world" of Kate Coombs!

Kate:  My home is on a hillside in Utah, and my desk faces a set of doors with inset glass panes and a large window flanking a corner. So I look out over a small canyon (or a large ravine). Right now it's snowing, which makes the view of the pines and other trees very picturesque. I like the way colored glass looks in sunlight, so the windowsill to my right is lined with different colored glass bottles and small vases—aqua, pale green, strong turquoise, pink, deep blue, and touches of yellow. I have wind chimes at the top of the door in front of me that are made of an arching school of silver fish with lengths of colored glass and bells underneath like colored rain dropping down from a cloud.

The desk was my great-grandfather's and is made of leather, though my grandmother painted it a sort of mustard color at some point, which is odd. There are two plants on my desk, along with some seashells, including about a dozen small shells lined up in a small Chinese lacquer tray together with polished rocks, a marble, and an acorn. I also have a paper mache hedgehog and a rather pensive-looking frog sitting beside my computer, not to mention a bronze Chinese dragon, a miniature pirate ship, a dragon's eye whose pupil is an old watch, and a green ceramic Inca guy who is my pencil holder. Needless to say, the rest of my office consists primarily of bookshelves—nine of them. There are five more in my sunroom. (Even after I got rid of a lot of books moving here from California!) As you might imagine, I have nearly two bookcases full of folk and fairy tale collections and picture book retellings.

Miranda: And my husband thinks I have too many books!  (We only have five bookshelves in our house...).  So I don't think that's too strange.  But I have to ask something strange, so....

On your website, you've got six fun facts.  I won't reveal them - my readers will have to go over to your site.  But, can you tell us some other fun facts about Kate Coombs?

  • Most people wouldn't guess by looking at me that I'm fluent in Spanish. I lived in Argentina for eighteen months when I was in my early twenties.
  • I taught a writing class at a women's shelter for a time, a very rich and poignant experience. Everyone was worried about their spelling, but I assured them I just wanted to hear what they had to say.
  • When I was five and my brother and his friend were seven, they took me to explore a haunted house. They were too scared to go in, so they sent me in as the unwitting advance scout.
  • For several years, I drove around Los Angeles teaching sick kids for the school district. (Three of my students died of cancer.)
  • There are a lot of deer hanging out in my yard, which makes it difficult to plant the flowers I like. The deer eat them!
  • I fell off the top bunk when I was young, managing to bloody my nose and my big toe (the nail came off). My family has some interesting ideas about the dive I must have taken.
  • I can cut out a really great snowflake. When I moved to Utah, I was surprised to see how small the actual flakes are!
  • I came in second place in our school-wide spelling bee in sixth grade. The word I missed was "kernel."
  • I originally studied to be an illustrator, but I kept coming back to my love of words. Some of my paintings are on my website. Now I use my visual imagination to write stories.

Miranda: Thanks for stopping by, Kate!  You're such an amazing person with a real gift for storytelling.  I want to make sure my readers can find your website, etc. and links to where they can buy your books!  Can you share your info?

Twitter:    @katecoombs13


Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Thanks for a wonderful interview, Miranda and Kate. I love the description of your writing area, Kate, and the poem you selected to share form your new book is absolutely beautiful!

Irene Latham said...

I am a huge fan of Kate's work -- lovelovelove THE SECRET KEEPER and have given a number of copies to friends. I am eager to get my hands on OCEAN SINGS BLUE. The world needs more Kate! Thanks so much for the interview.

Miranda Paul said...

@Susanna - I agree! Her writing and the world she writes in is so beautiful.

@Irene - so glad to hear you're a fan. I agree, the world needs more Kate!

Hardygirl said...

Such a fabulous interview!


Miranda Paul said...

@Hardygirl - Thanks! Kate is so easy to interview!

Yanting Gueh said...

What an enjoyable interview! I love the poem and the description of Kate's working area. Already the title 'Ocean Sings Blue' sounds intriguing.

KateCoombs said...

You guys are so nice! Thanks for interviewing me, Miranda.

Kelly Hashway said...

Great interview. Both books look great. I'll have to check them out for my daughter.

msdiamondhill said...

Good job for the interview.
And great books Kate Coombs!
Good luck for the new poetry book.

Melanie said...

It's kind of funny how some of the fairy tales we tell children have to be majorly redone before they're acceptable. Hans the Hedgehog looks adorable!

Anonymous said...

Nice interview Miranda.. Good job..

There are lots of folk tales for kids that are also a great read for not so young.. you know.. even I enjoyed reading some of them

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